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Carl Engstrom Will Match Your Virtual Learning Drive Gifts to Give Back

Carl Engstrom posing with Harvard Team

Carl Engstrom is now an attorney at Nichols Kaster. He debated at Edina in high school and with the Harvard University debate team, seen here with fellow senior debater Sonja Starr and coaches Paul Skiermont, Scott Hessell, Sherry Hall, and Dallas Perkins.

When you give to our virtual debate supply campaign during Give to the Max (Nov 1st-Nov 19th), your gift will be matched by Carl Engstrom, up to $3,000!

COVID-19 is making changes to every aspect of life – but we’re still providing debate programming, 100% virtually. When Carl found out that we need 300 headsets for middle school debaters before their virtual season begins, he took action! Carl says:

Debate’s been incredibly important and meaningful to me, and I believe in it being available to everybody. I want to do what I can to help out debate in our community.


Join Carl at our 2020 Virtual Mayors Challenge and give a gift that he’ll match. Learn more at our GiveCampus page!

Read on to learn about his impression of the Mayors Challenge, his time debating on the legendary Dallas Perkins’ team, why debate matters now, and more!

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

My name’s Carl Engstrom. I’m an attorney at Nichols Kaster, which is a plaintiff’s firm. I debated in high school at Edina and in college at Harvard.


How’d you initially join debate?

I love to talk and argue. Once I heard about debate, I jumped on it as quickly as possible. I mostly feel bad for my coaches, because I had never had an outlet where I was allowed to openly express things and have people listen. It was like turning on a fire hydrant once I was in the activity!

I’d get done with debate for a full day, sit on the bus, and talk to everyone within 6 feet away. It’s also funny how intense those connections can be, and how meaningful they are later on. When I entered law, my teammate, who was a sophomore when I was a freshman, remembered me from back then – she knew me still! She got me an interview, and that’s the only firm I worked at since I started my law practice. Weirdly, that annoying kid who couldn’t stop talking didn’t turn people off so much.


How did you get involved with debate at Harvard University?

I didn’t even know their team existed. But Fred Sternhagen at Concordia asked me to judge at their camp the summer after my freshman year of college. Being back and exposed to the activity sparked my interest again. When I got a ride home from Lynn Schmitt, we were talking about why she debated in college, and that she still had an itch. I realized that I had it, too. I found the team, and talked with Dallas Perkins, and they said, anyone can join. They said I was only the 4th person on the team.

I started out my career losing 13 of my first 14 debate rounds. I remember seeing Dallas after the first day of my third tournament, asking me if I had won any debates today, and I looked at my shoes and murmured that I had not.

Apparently the time off made it a tough transition. I started to get better, and by senior year, I was winning more than I was losing! My partner Sonja Starr and I were voted the fifth best team in the country in the NDT First Round At-Large Bid voting for the 1997-1998 debate season.


How did the Minnesota Urban Debate League get on your radar?

When I was in college around 1997 or ’98, Melissa Wade at Emory University first started the Atlanta UDL. I coached at Gonzaga for a year, and that’s when the Seattle one started. I’ve been aware of UDLs from their inception. Since I’m still friends on social media with a lot of debate people I’ve known, I’m connected to many of the UDLs.

I grew up in Minnesota and this is my community. When I came back to Minnesota in 2009, I did a little bit of coaching and judging. I was really excited to see there were debaters from Minneapolis South and St. Paul Central – those teams didn’t exist when I debated. As my professional development progressed, I’ve tried to support the Minnesota Urban Debate League wherever I could.

And of course, I’ve been to the Mayors Challenge three times. I’ve loved it every time! I just loved seeing four students who have not only excelled in debate, but are so impressive in their personal development. It really speaks to my belief that debate gives students a set of powerful tools in life, wherever it may take them.


What tools does debate provide?

It’s incredibly important training for success in a number of fields. To be able to think through persuasive argument and entire issues is a level of thinking 99% of people can’t engage in. People think you’re omniscient if you can anticipate arguments, but it’s just debate training.


Why are you supporting debate now?

There have been a number of Twitter discussions lately of people who have speculated: is debate evil? If you look at some of the attorneys, politicians, etc. that have become prominent – who are doing harm – there’s a strong strain of people who did debate.

My response to that is, that’s what happens when access to debate is unequal.

In my experience, there’s a lot of former debaters who do amazing things. People I used to debate with are driving progressive ACLU litigation campaigns, defending the Voting Rights Act in front of the Supreme Court, or leading the fight for criminal justice reform.

To me, providing access to debate is an incredibly powerful way to have representation from folks in more diverse communities, and more diverse economic backgrounds, in positions of power.

Your support helps make access to virtual debate programming more equitable! Make a one-time or monthly gift toward our $30,000 goal by November 19th to maximize your impact with Carl’s Give to the Max match!